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Note: this newsletter alternates between new pieces and pieces from the archives. This is one of the latter, first published in Conatus News, which is now Uncommon Ground Media. You can find the original here. Do check it out: it’s a great little publication.
Where friendship, admiration or respect for individuals is concerned, it makes no difference to me who you choose to sleep with or what is hidden inside your knickers. I love people of both sexes and all sexualities. Once we're friends, those things make no difference whatsoever to my affection for you.
But if we've just met, the likelihood that we will become friends, that we will share a sense of humour and have similar outlooks on the world is far higher if you are a gay man. I've been a fag hag, a flame dame, a lover of gay men all my life.
I don't know where and how this affinity began. But I do know that I have always known that there is nothing unhealthy or immoral about same-sex relationships. I knew that, even as a child, at my boarding school, with its atmosphere of extreme homophobic paranoia, where just hugging another girl too warmly was considered an indication of lesbianism and where queer was the worst insult, whispered behind people's backs in tones of hushed horror or flung out as an insult guaranteed to provoke tears of shame.
Even though I've never experienced erotic feelings for another woman, gay rights have captured my imagination more profoundly than almost any other issue. Many people believe that people are primarily galvanised by issues that affect them directly and there is even an unfortunate tendency among some to view those who are less likely to be personally impacted as intrinsically poor allies or even potential opponents. We seek origin stories to explain political convictions: a practice that is often helpful in humanising our ideological opponents, in helping us understand, in the hackneyed but apt metaphor, where they are coming from and encouraging us therefore to meet them halfway there. But though this issue has never affected me at the level of my physical being, it feels personal to me because the values at stake are of central importance to what it means to be human.
There is a long way still to go. Religious zealots of every stripe preach their intolerance and hatred. Gay men are subjected to forced sexual reassignment surgeries in Iran, hanged in Saudi Arabia, imprisoned and tortured in Nigeria, stoned to death in Brunei. Homosexuality is illegal in an estimated 70 countries worldwide and punishable by death in 11. And, even in the west, there are pockets of intolerance, young men and women who are ostracised, abandoned, even driven to suicide by the cruelty of families or the shame imposed by regressive religious indoctrination.
But look how far we've come! Most young people in the west are refreshingly casual and uncaring (in the best way) about this. It's an absolute non-issue for many. Meanwhile, marriage equality is the law of the land everywhere from Argentina to Taiwan and—despite some recent ominous rumblings—in every state of the Union. Everywhere, we are winning the battle for hearts and minds.
The rise to prominence of the trans movement has added a level of complexity to these issues that zealots on both sides of that issue are often unwilling to acknowledge. There are intrinsic conflicts of interest between biological and trans woman in professional sports and in some situations in which violent male predators abuse the freedoms provided by the practice of self-ID to gain access to women’s rape shelters and prisons. Some over-zealous doctors attribute a gamut of psychological problems in girls, caused by conditions like autism or experiences like sexual abuse, to gender dysphoria. Some even see all departures from sexual norms as indications that a child (especially if the child is female) is trans. This is especially worrying given the unknown long-term and potentially damaging effects of puberty blockers and other hormone treatments prescribed to the under-age. But I do believe we all have an innate sense of gender identity, which—like so many things—is most noticeable when there is a problem: a profound mismatch between the body and the sense of self. I also believe that adults should have the freedom to change their appearance, their bodies and their identities in whatever way will make them happiest and, so long as they do not harm others in doing so, should be allowed to live their lives without stigma and opprobrium and must be allowed to live them without fear of discrimination, harassment or violence.
We should not, however, let our views on this specific issue stop us from celebrating the biggest advance of liberalism and liberty in my lifetime. These rights were won without unnecessarily alienating others, without encouraging resentments against straight people, by welcoming everyone to the cause as allies, widening the circle and taking the positive approach.
And they have benefited us all.
Sexuality in all its forms is a deeply personal thing, hedged around with judgements and taboos, involuntary, often secret, sometimes shameful. The longstanding campaign for LGBT rights has emphasised one simple, but too often forgotten lesson. Consensual relationships between adults are always ethically neutral. Only sex which is coerced through blackmail, violence or threat of violence or through the exploitation of those unable to consent is inherently shameful. Our inability to understand and respect that distinction has led to untold oppression and unhappiness throughout history and throughout the world. Gay and trans rights are human rights first and foremost. I think it likely that, were we, in some dystopian future, able to eliminate homosexuality, society would be impoverished in myriad ways impossible to predict.
The freedom to choose who to sleep with, who to partner, who to love is at the heart of what it means to have dignity and autonomy as a human being for all of us. We all owe those who secured those freedoms a debt of gratitude and I, for one, will celebrate it with pride.